Conversations

You and I find ourselves sitting in a pub. Within earshot, we can faintly overhear two other conversations.

One conversation sounds like a rigorous dialogue between two intellectuals. The level of their discourse renders you and I as curious laypersons. We admire their knowledge and academic prowess in the field of their expertise (even if we are confused by their technicality and lexicon). Their discussion seems to exude urgency.

The other conversation in auditory range involves two enthusiastic individuals pouring over colourful, popular magazines. Their exuberance is as visible as it is audible. We hear snippets of their fast moving conversation, which touches on flashpoints of fashion, the rumoured lives of popular celebrities, clips of sport highlight reels, viral cat videos, and the domestic complexities of fictional characters on television.

On the surface, the two conversations seem like they belong in alternate universes. As we sit here, we would likely (and easily) differentiate between the flaky banter of pop culture and the consequential exchange of the specialists. Yet our judgments themselves are superficial. Consider what the two conversations have in common.

Both discussions are intensely relational. While we might suppose that the academics are “all business” and the boisterous cultural consumers are “all play,” such an arbitrary division only exists in our minds. The learned experts are no less relational creatures than their counterparts. In fact, to the same extent that popular culture creates a shared language for human connection, you will sense and see no less human need for commonly held values at a scholarly conference. Both conversations, different as they may be on the surface, exist as essential platforms of human connection. The extreme dissimilarity of their content does not diminish the identical nature of their function — two humans interacting in a pub over a set of creative and shared ideas.

Equally, both conversations include reference points for respect between people. Both frequencies of dialogue come with their own codes of conduct, and both celebrate different domains of knowledge. Even so, do we calculate their value differently? What shall we say of consequence?

On one level, we might hypothesize that the conversation between two research professors about theoretical chemistry of a new vaccine will have ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ impact on the world, but we would be remiss to ignore the fact that reality television influences the lives — and minds — of millions of people. Fluency and influence in either domain can lead to ‘consequence,’ and how we go about differentiating impact ‘value’ will be in large part dependent on what we value in the first place.

The point of this reflection: we humans are a connective species, and our need for interconnectivity underscores everything we do. Consider a brilliant discovery in a laboratory by a single scientist (a notably rare scenario as most discoveries involve teams): even the biggest breakthrough carries no consequence until the network of social nodes succeeds in transferring the knowledge where it needs to go. Ultimately, ‘consequence’ is simply the result of where we move knowledge.

So is there a fruitless human conversation? Could you ‘waste’ time in a meaningless dialogue today? Or, could buried treasure lay in every interaction of humanity, across the bizarre, divergent, and creative landscapes of our imaginations? I suppose the only way to really find out is to listen — non-judgmentally — to both conversations.

What are your conversations about today?

[This post originally appeared in Caesura Letters – Volume II: All That We Are, released 03/20/2013.]

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Phone Baskets and Sacred Spaces

There is a basket in my front hallway. It is where my phone lives when I am at home. And if I want to use my phone, I consign myself to doing my business in the front hallway.

Since my phone moved to its home in the basket, I find myself interacting with the entranceway as a distinct room in my house. In a sense, the hallway is the internet. Or, at least at a minimum, it represents the distractions and clamour of the internet.

What’s in the rest of the house? Family, books, and little shrines of furniture devoted to dining, chatting, playing, and writing. And all of these activities are more important to me than my inbox. Over time, a spacial differentiation occurs. The hallway becomes a physical boundary marker: it is a buffer between the people and activities I love the most vis-a-vis everything else in the world that wants to interrupt.

When I leave my phone in the basket in the front hallway, the house transforms into a home, instead of a remote office. Not only a home but also a sanctuary: a place to be free from enslavement to correspondence and exchange; a place for talking, eating, reading, doodling, and thinking.

A home is only a ’domain’ if it is distinctive from the rest of the world. And increasingly it seems to me that ’the internet’ and ’the rest of the world’ are synonyms. My front hallway has become the frontlines in keeping the world at bay.

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Stop wasting other people’s lives

10 Timeframes by Paul Ford is a beautiful essay. Ford asks a deceivingly simple question: when you spend a portion of your life (that is, your time) working on a project, do you take into account how your work will consume, spend, or use portions of other lives? How does the ‘thing’ you are working on right now play out in the future when there are “People using your systems, playing with your toys, [and] fiddling with your abstractions”?

It is good to think about how to negate wasting other people’s time in the here and now. Straight to the chase, I can’t say it better than Jason Fried: “If you have a meeting coming up and you have the power to do so, just cancel it.”

But what about the future users of your products, platforms, systems, and knowledge? Are you honouring their lives and time, too? I often think about this when editing video: does this one-minute section respect the time of future viewers? A minute multiplied by the number of times a video might be viewed suddenly represents a sizeable chunk of collective human resources. In this respect, ‘filler’ is irresponsible: if you know something is not adding value or meaning to future ‘consumers,’ then you are, in a sense, robbing life from them. It seems extreme to say that, yes, but hopefully contemplating the proposition has not wasted your time.

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